We’ve reached the fourteenth chapter of our novel. At this point, we have to describe Holly Sterling. Holly’s death is the event that sets in motion the whole plot, and her corpse has been drained and buried since at least the third chapter. Eventually, we knew that we would have to show her in life – we would have to go backwards. And we knew that we had a problem. Holly Sterling is beautiful. Her reputation is held in that adjective. Beauty is one of her assets.
But between the saying of the thing and its credibility lies the whole sad mechanism of art. A mechanism that is as prone to breakdowns as one of those early versions of the horseless carriage. The ones with the engines you had to crank.
The figure of the beautiful woman lies at the very limit of the descriptive powers of the novel. At that limit, it defines the describable. What can be described is everything up to the beautiful woman. She, however, by being so purely descriptive, escapes description. This has been so for a long time. In the Iliad, the events are set in motion by a beauty contest and the seizure of a beautiful woman, Helen. In other words, from the very beginning of Western literature, the beautiful woman has been that figure from which the action flows. If Helen had been another smudged helot, and Paris had been a horny shepherd, who would have cared? In fact, we would have cared -- this question inaugurates another tradition – comedy – and is explored by, among others, Moliere in Amphytiron, as well as Shakespeare in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Class – status – is, in other words, written into the contract between reader and writer that sets the terms of the beautiful woman, and in its clauses we shift from comedy to tragedy and back.
But this is the theoretical fog that hovers over the facts in the case. In fact, how is Helen beautiful?
In that paleo age of the mirror, Homer’s answer is surprisingly modern. Or perhaps I should say that the answer is caught in a mode of representation that operates as a sort of invariant throughout Western literature. He constructs a negative space around Helen – that is, he shows her effect upon her beholders. It is not Helen who is beautiful – or at least, her beauty requires a mirror. It is a relation, not a Platonic form. Her most famous entrance is in the third book, where the elders behold “white armed Helen” at the gates, while the troops assemble below to battle:
Forthwith she veiled her face in shining linen, and hastened from her
chamber, letting fall a round tear; not unattended, for there followed
with her two handmaidens, Aithre daughter of Pittheus and ox-eyed
Klymene. Then came she straightway to the place of the Skaian gates. And they that were with Priam and Panthoos and Thymoites and Lampos and
Klytios and Hiketaon of the stock of Ares, Oukalegon withal and Antenor, twain sages, being elders of the people, sat at the Skaian gates. These had now ceased from battle for old age, yet were they right good orators, like grasshoppers that in a forest sit upon a tree and utter their lily-like [supposed to mean "delicate" or "tender"] voice; even so sat the elders of the Trojans upon the tower. Now when they saw Helen coming to the tower they softly spake winged words one to the other: "Small blame is it that Trojans and well-greaved Achaians should for such a woman long time suffer hardships; marvellously like is she to the immortal goddesses to look upon.”
Notice how beauty is not only in the eyes of the beholders, here, but is described almost entirely with reference to those eyes, and that effect. The woman herself – white armed, shedding some tears, covered with a cloak – has no real descriptive distinction to set her looks apart from ox eyed Kymene and Aithre. She is filled in, so to speak, by being filled in.
Every writer feels that something is surrendered here. But the defeat is obscure. The stakes of the battle are the writer’s own powers, but what are the means by which one recovers from the certain defeat that ensues from testing those powers on beauty?
That’s a very material question for LI.
However, contrast Homer with Balzac’s managing of the first encounter of Mademoiselle Marnaffe and Baron Hulot in Cousine Bette (note: most early translations of Balzac are bowdlerized. Better to read him in a good Penguin translation, if you don't read French):
Au moment où le baron Hulot mit la cousine de sa femme [poor cousin Bette] à la porte de cette maison, en lui disant: "Adieu, cousine!" une jeune femme, petite, svelte, jolie, mise avec une grande élégance, exhalant un parfum choisi, passait entre la voiture et la muraille pour entrer aussi dans la maison. Cette dame échangea, sans aucune espèce de préméditation, un regard avec le baron, uniquement pour voir le cousin de la locataire; mais le libertin ressentit cette vive impression qu'éprouvent tous les Parisiens quand ils rencontrent une jolie femme qui réalise, comme disent les entomologistes, leurs desiderata, et il mit avec une sage lenteur un de ses gants avant de remonter en voiture, pour se donner une contenance et pouvoir suivre de l'oeil la jeune femme, dont la robe était agréablement balancée par autre chose que ces affreuses et frauduleuses sous-jupes en crinoline.
- Voilà, se disait-il, une gentille petite femme de qui je ferais volontiers le bonheur, car elle ferait le mien.
Quand l'inconnue eut atteint le palier de l'escalier qui desservait le corps de logis situé sur la rue, elle regarda la porte cochère du coin de l'oeil, sans se retourner positivement, et vit le baron cloué sur place par l'admiration, dévoré de désir et de curiosité. C'est comme une fleur que toutes les Parisiennes respirent avec plaisir, en la trouvant sur leur passage. Certaines femmes attachées à leurs devoirs, vertueuses et jolies, reviennent au logis assez maussades, lorsqu'elles n'ont pas fait leur petit bouquet pendant la promenade.
La jeune femme monta rapidement l'escalier. Bientôt une fenêtre de l'appartement du deuxième étage s'ouvrit, et elle s'y montra, mais en compagnie d'un monsieur dont le crâne pelé, dont l'oeil peu courroucé, révélaient un mari.
Sont-elles fines et spirituelles, ces créatures-là!... se dit le baron, elle m'indique ainsi sa demeure. C'est un peu trop vif, surtout dans ce quartier-ci. Prenons garde.
Surely it is the dress, that robe which shows an agreeable motion produced by something other than those “affreuses et frauduleuses” crinoline slips – caused, in other words, by the motion of the thing itself, Marnaffe’s ass – which anchors our sense, from the very beginning, of Marnaffe as a woman who has a carnality that makes Helen’s white arms seem very pale, indeed. Cousine Bette is a novel of vengeance. The vengeance is effected by a very plain woman – Cousine Bette – on a beautiful woman – her cousin, Baronne Hulot – by means of a ‘jolie” woman – Marnaffe. It, too, is about an abduction of a sort, except this time it is a man, Baron Hulot, who is abducted. His abduction is in exchange for the abduction of Cousine Bette’s love, the sculptor Wenceslas Steinbock, who is stolen by the Hulot family for the daughter, Hortense. So we are not, after all, so far from the Illiad. But the emotional values in this story all emerge out of Hulot’s descent into the very delirium of pussy and ass – a delirium measured by the expenditure of money – for banquets, dresses, apartments, jewelry, the draining away the Hulot family fortune. Hulot’s taste for lying between Marnaffe’s cheeks is a ruinous passion, and in its ruin, a perversely heroic one. For all of Henry Miller’s poetic of the Land of Fuck, Hulot seems the truer inhabitant of the flesh. Balzac’s concept of the flesh is to oppose it radically to thought – this is the flesh you find around the bone. This is the pure flesh of the dick: unthinking, its will all rushes and retreats of blood.
But one could well ask: haven’t we slipped off the rails? Is Marnaffe more than “jolie”? For Balzac, beauté is ascribed to Baronne Hulot – Hulot’s wife. Her beauty is made up of the fact that she is a great soul. Her great soul is proven by the enormity of her sacrifices – in effect, she sacrifices the family estate to her husband’s appetite for Marnaffe. This sacrifice entails ruining her children, so that Marnaffe can devour the family fortune. Balzac precedes Zola in Nana in making the voracity of the whore – eating and sex, that everlasting duo -- play into a metaphor of money being spent. Nana eats, at a certain delirious point, whole railroad companies. Marnaffe mearly gulps down the Hulot real estate.
Helen, of course, cries and smiles – but does she eat? Does Baronne Hulot?
Baronne Hulot is nearing fifty. Balzac had a rather charming obsession, even when he was twenty, with forty to fifty year old women. He compares Adeline to her daughter, at the beginning of the novel, and tells us that 'amateurs of sunsets" would prefer the mother. But he fails to make the contract with the reader stick. Baronne Hulot’s beauty is affirmed at the limit of our imagination – we can believe in it, as we can believe in God, through a labyrinth of metaphors. But the thing itself – as a good thing, something as palpable as Marnaffe’s ass – always escapes us.
Next post I’m going to use Jann Matlock’s essay on The Invisible Woman and her Secrets Unveiled, and an ethnographic study of cocktail waitresses by Lorraine Bayard de Volo, to go a little further with this.